The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) relies on accurate monitoring data from on-board observers to track species-specific catch and bycatch amounts and to manage the fisheries under their purview. This system is known as the Observer Program, which has been in place since 1990, though observers have been required in some fisheries in Alaska since the 1970s.
In early 2013, the Observer Program was restructured by the NPFMC so that all sectors of the groundfish fishery including those previously un-observed such as the commercial halibut sector and vessels less than 60 feet length overall are now included in the Observer Program. Now, all vessels in the halibut and groundfish fisheries off Alaska are placed into one of two observer coverage categories: one with full coverage (with one observer onboard at all times (100% coverage) and two observers on board at all times for some vessels (200% coverage – for catcher processors and motherships in designated fisheries) and the other with partial coverage. For those in the partial coverage category, the North Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) deploys observers on randomly selected vessels according to annual deployment plan which reflects conservation and management needs.
The restructured observer program is a significant step forward in explanding observer coverage to smaller vessels and to new fisheries, and eliminating bias associated with vessel operators choosing when to carry an observer. Unfortunately, the program has also been a step back in some regards, as some trawl fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska actually have lower coverage rates now than they did under the prior program. Since recording accurate data on Chinook salmon, halibut, and Tanner crab bycatch in the trawl fleet was a major impetus for restructuring the observer program, AMCC and other groups have advocated at the NPFMC for prioritization of data collection in fisheries known to have high rates of bycatch. The NPFMC made this recommendation for both the 2014 and 2015 annual deployment plans, and the 2014 final plan did include a slightly higher coverage rate for larger vessels (which encompasses most of those with bycatch concerns). However, the overall sampling rates remain relatively low. The best hope for better observer coverage on Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries at this time appears to be the Gulf of Alaska catch share program, which will include mandatory 100% observer coverage.
Another important component of the restructured observer program is the development of Electronic Monitoring (EM). EM provides a critical method for collecting data from smaller vessels that have challenges carrying a human observer. While development of an EM alternative has lagged behind implementation of the rest of the program, NMFS is now making progress with the urging of the NPFMC and input from the NPFMC’s new multi-stakeholder EM workgroup. Availability of EM is critical to the continued viability of the small boat fleet which is an integral part of Alaska’s fishing communities.
To learn more about the Observer Program, check out the following:
- Op-ed by former AMCC board chair, Dave Kubiak in Anchorage Daily News
- North Pacific Fishery Management Observer Program
- NOAA Fisheries Restructured Observer Program
- NOAA Fisheries Observer Program FAQs